On 26 February 1969, Roger Mortimer wrote to his son, Charlie: ‘Your mother has had flu. Her little plan to give up spirits for Lent lasted three and a half days. Pongo has chewed up a rug and had very bad diarrhoea in the kitchen. Six Indians were killed in a car crash in Newbury.’
Even 40 years ago, the real-life buffer was a dying breed. Perhaps Roger Mortimer — Eton, Coldstream Guards, assorted POW camps during the second world war, then racing correspondent of the Sunday Times — was the last of the lot. If so, they went out with a suitably sclerotic roar.
For 25 years, he wrote regular letters to his son, Charlie. Like him, Charlie also went to Eton, but left without ‘a single, humble A level’. He then proceeded to rack up an astonishing number of failed careers, including managing a ‘multi-national rock band’ and manufacturing boxer shorts.
To begin with, the tone of his father’s letters is exasperated, despairing even. ‘Surely you can see for yourself that your idleness and refusal to do any little task that is in the slightest degree irksome renders you totally unfit for adult employment?’ But for all his harrumphing admonishments, Mortimer Snr has a wonderfully light and vivid touch.
March 1971 finds him sitting in the restaurant car of a train from Doncaster:
I was just getting my tongue round the Crosse & Blackwell’s tinned asparagus soup when the waiter says, ‘There’s a young honeymoon couple who don’t want to be separated. Do you mind moving and I can give you a single seat at a table with some very nice people?’ Like hell you can, I thought, but shifted with ill grace to leave the table to a very dirty young man with a beard like black cotton wool and a dark lady with the promising beginnings of a heavy cavalry moustache. They may not want to be separated now, I thought, but I bet they soon will be.
What becomes increasingly clear — despite the yawning generation gap between them — is that father and son are far more alike than either cares to acknowledge. Both of them have little respect for authority — or in Roger’s case for the trappings that surround it. ‘Prince Charles flew to a neighbouring airfield and made himself very agreeable,’ he writes in November 1970. ‘Not so his equerry Soames, who was reported to me as incompetent, ill-mannered, uncouth and very badly turned out in filthy boots.’
Booze, not altogether surprisingly, plays a large part here. ‘Lady P dipped her nut a bit too far into the martini bucket and became more or less unplayable,’ records Roger after yet another sodden evening. As for Charlie, he’s admitted to Basingstoke hospital, suffering from liver failure, then takes himself off to a drying-out centre in Weston-Super-Mare: ‘I threw my empty brandy glass out of the open sun-roof as I drove through the entrance gates.’
Meanwhile, his extended family lurches across the canvas in various states of derangement. Charlie’s ‘Aunt Boo’ stands for parliament under a ‘Keep Dorking White’ banner, and is often to be found holding forth at Speakers’ Corner ‘wearing a Jayne Mansfield-style nylon wig’.
Roger Mortimer died in 1991. For all his impatience, he plainly adored his son and it seems thoroughly apt that his final letter should contain the oft-repeated sentence, ‘Can I help you over £sd?’ Despite his father’s fears, Charlie Mortimer has, if not exactly prospered, then clearly survived. He now describes himself as a ‘middle-aged, middle-class spiv (mostly retired)’.
I must admit I began Dear Lupin without much in the way of expectation. Soon, however, I was emitting increasingly frequent snorts of laughter — several of them helplessly protracted. As well as being the funniest book I’ve read in ages, it’s also extremely touching. A delight then, on every front.